Heat embracing challenge, find way to return to the Eastern Conference finals

MIAMI (AP) — Inside the Miami Heat locker room, now officially halfway to the season’s ultimate goal, Erik Spoelstra stepped onto the NBA championship logo on the center of the floor and gathered his team around him.

His message was simple.

“There’s been nothing about this season that’s been easy,” Spoelstra said.

He’s right, and the Heat aren’t complaining about that, either — since this anything-but-easy season is still going.

They were a No. 1 seed last year and got to the Eastern Conference finals, and this year, they were a No. 8 seed and still got to the Eastern Conference finals. It took six games to get past New York — the revival of a playoff rivalry from the late 1990s and early 2000s — but the job is done, the clincher coming in a 96-92 win in Game 6 of their East semifinal matchup Friday night.

“It’s a crazy story being written,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “Through all the ups and downs of the season, a lot of people counted us out. We weren’t even going to make it past the first round and now we’re in the Eastern Conference finals. It just shows the determination and the will this team has.”

It’s a wild time in South Florida, and the Heat are only half of that story right now.

The Florida Panthers — they seed a little differently in the NHL, but they’re basically a No. 8 seed as well, just like their NBA neighbors in Miami — are also headed to the conference finals, winning in Toronto on Friday night in overtime to clinch that series in five games.

The Heat and Panthers are following the same path so far; up-and-down regular season, scramble just to get into the playoffs, then beat the No. 1 overall seed in Round 1 — for the Heat it was the Milwaukee Bucks, for the Panthers it was the Boston Bruins — followed by a win over another favored opponent in Round 2. And all that comes on the heels of Miami and Florida Atlantic going to the men’s college basketball Final Four last month, Miami going to the women’s Elite Eight and Nova Southeastern winning the Division II men’s national title.

“I wish I could actually go to some of these events,” Spoelstra said.

He’d rather be busy for a few more weeks. Game 1 of the East finals — at either Boston or Philadelphia, two teams that will play a Game 7 of their East semifinal series on Sunday — awaits on Wednesday. If the Celtics win, it’ll be two rematches of the conference finals from the 2020 bubble restart, with Denver set to face the Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference title as well.

“We’ve got eight more (wins) to get,” Heat star Jimmy Butler said. “Like I always say, we’re always going to be in this thing together. I’m so, so proud of all of my guys for playing as hard as we did today. And like I said, we’ve got eight more.”

The Heat lost their first play-in game to Atlanta and missed a chance at the No. 7 seed, then needed a 15-1 run to close the second play-in game against Chicago, rally from a late deficit and sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.

They’re 8-3 since and nobody in the playoffs has a better record. Miami has the same record West No. 1 seed Denver posted in its first two rounds, would be the same record as Philadelphia through two rounds if the 76ers win on Sunday, and is a bit better than the 8-4 mark by the Lakers to this point.

“Hopefully we keep it rolling, man,” Heat point guard Gabe Vincent said.

The series against the Knicks was not aesthetically pleasing. The Heat shot 43% to New York’s 44% and both teams struggled from 3-point range — 31% for Miami, 30% for New York.

But the Heat found a way, even after losing a potential clincher in Game 5 and falling behind by 14 early in Game 6. The Heat had a one-point lead at the half and never trailed after halftime, dodging everything the Knicks threw their way.

It wasn’t easy. But it was fitting, as Spoelstra said.

“Just an absolute grind,” Spoelstra said.

The grind continues, with a trip to Boston or Philadelphia awaiting.

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